10 Feb 2020

Caging Skies author on JoJo Rabbit adaptation

From Nine To Noon, 9:35 am on 10 February 2020

Christine Leunens never thought the dark themes of her novel Caging Skies, now adapted as a feature film Jojo Rabbit directed by Taika Waititi, would become relevant again in her lifetime.

But the rise of racism, anti-semitism and far-right political parties, has made it so, she says.

 Taika Waititi, Christine Leunens & Carthew Neal.

Taika Waititi, Christine Leunens & Carthew Neal. Photo: supplied

The novel, set during World War II, is about a young German boy called Jojo who discovers a Jewish girl, Elsa, who is in hiding. Jojo is an enthusiastic member of Hilter Youth.

Written more than 15 years ago, at the time there were doubts whether readers would be interested in another story about World War II - so the novel was first published in Spanish, and then in Catalan, Italian, and French, before an English version came out.

“In my book, Johannes is always aware of Hitler and every choice he makes, it brings him closer to Hitler and very important thanks to the mission Hitler gives him,” says Leunens.

“…then it brings him away from Hitler as he starts to get closer and closer to Elsa and he realises actually that the things that he had been taught weren’t true.”

Leunens knew it was a risk to have the young boy’s imaginary friend be Hitler, but says it was historically justified.

She wanted to understand how children had been lied to and indoctrinated and how they could be transformed into young people with so much hatred in their hearts despite their playful nature.

“I also wanted to explore how lies work on an individual scale, how people can lie to themselves and then how lies can suddenly take root and walk on a larger scale.”

Superiority and inferiority were also topics she felt were important to explore.

“That’s something that never leads to good and it seems to be the cause of so many moments in history when there’s this whole notion of us and them.”

Taika Waititi, Christine Leunens, Carthew Neal, Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie

Taika Waititi, Christine Leunens, Carthew Neal, Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie Photo: supplied

You can’t change the world with one book she says, but artists can ignite empathy.

“People are people and I think we’re living in a climate, currently today, which has a lot of security and fear and a lot of politicians are using that fear to get to power.”

Power all too quickly can turn into something dark, she says.

“…and that’s something people have to be mindful of.”

The film Jojo Rabbit is up for six Oscars, including best picture but the story only came to Taika Waititi’s attention after his mum read Caging Skies and put it in front of him.

Leunens says before she met Waititi she saw Boy and his short films, including Two Cars, One Night, and loved them.

“That created a relationship of trust. I said, ‘look this is my book but it’s your film, you have to put your touches…so that the film comes alive.”

That’s exactly what he did, she says.